Abstract: An exploration of the concept of realism and its implications with reference to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, after Christmas.
In the spirit of previous manifestos I wish to provide my very own set of principles for this essay:
1. Detailed analysis of movements relating to realism in other national cinemas will be precluded.
2. Italian Neorealism may only be referred to with the aim of comparing its characteristics to those of New Romanian Cinema.
3. Romanian cinema pre-1989 will be considered in a bid to determine the meaning of socialist realism and its presence in New Romanian Cinema.
4. The term, New Romanian Cinema, will be used to discuss the films made since the release of Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and dough (Marfa şi banii) (2001) until today.
5. The meaning of reality is subject to continuing debate, especially the many ways in which it is portrayed in films. Therefore, this essay will aim to focus on situations that are closely associated with the real living experience, through films that are based on the true events of the past and that focus on the human psyche.
In her essay, ‘The New Romanian Cinema: A Realism of Impressions’, Rodica Ieta, states that “realism constitutes the foundation of contemporary Romanian cinema’s focus on reality (that of the communist past markedly haunting the present as well as the current state of social problems without solutions” (2010, p. 23). This notion is at the centre of the Winter 2010 edition of Film Criticism and is explored in relation to New Romanian Cinema. Ieta’s words also hint at a concept of “present presented as past” (2005, p. 166) coined by Àgnes Pethö in her essay, ‘Chaos, intermediality, allegory: the cinema of Mircea Daneliuc’. Pethö uses the concept to discuss the Romanian film Glissando (1985) and how the director, Mircea Daneliuc, needed to set his narrative in the past in order to revolt against the present and therefore documenting the degradation of the human condition, as a result of communism, in the context of the Holocaust.
In the same way, the auteurs residing at the forefront of New Romanian Cinema are depicting references to Romania’s communist past as a means of providing a social commentary on the current state of things as a result of communism. Such auteurs as Corneliu Porumboiu, Florin Şerban, Cristian Mungiu, Adrian Sitaru and Radu Muntean may ardently refuse having any association to a ‘new wave’ of Romanian cinema, but they cannot ignore the collective interest shared in relation to this connection between the past and the present. Realism in the films of New Romanian Cinema is the recurring aesthetic that recollects the communist past—something that may be manifested through visual iconography, character psychology and the utilization of language.
New Romanian Cinema is telling the story of the past, and within this past lies something more than just a tableau of a communist life. It signifies a deeper understanding of the burden of such a totalitarian regime alongside the degradation of a society and the alienation of the individual. These notions will be explored in relation to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile) (2007) and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, after Christmas (Marţi, după Crăciun) (2010). Both films form part of the New Romanian Cinema, the difference being that 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days is set in the past, the Romania of the 1980s, and portrays the limitations experienced under communist rule whereas the narrative for Tuesday, after Christmas takes place in the present and acts as a reflection of the communist past through various metaphorical implications. These aspects will essentially aim to provide a unique examination of realism in New Romanian Cinema alongside the idea that the present is actively living and breathing in the past.
The many branches of realism
Realism in cinema is a widely perplexing subject precisely because of its diverse nature. The term ‘realism’ by itself, and without placing it within the context of cinema, evokes images relating to reality or the real life experience. The following dictionary meaning of the term, “the practise of regarding things in their true nature and dealing with them as they are” (Moore 2004, p. 1175), will act as a starting point for the purpose of discerning the numerous branches of the concept. This meaning can be used as a general reference to any artistic medium, from philosophy to literature and of course to cinema. However, art being art will always endeavour to assume fresh creative approaches to the themes and movements that exist at its core. For instance, in painting one may consider the French Realist, Jules Breton’s oeuvres as fundamental contributions to the documentation of the working class in rural France. And yet the attention paid to his subject’s gaze, illustrating a pensive sadness about them, enable us to modify the term of realism into something like ‘Bretonian Realism’. Movements come with various domains and the artist that forms a part of that domain is free to create his own interpretation of its principles.
This way of thinking can be used to explore realism in cinema and certainly in relation to neorealism, a movement that has been most prominently associated with post-war Italian cinema, but has become a recurring aesthetic of New Romanian Cinema. In the very context of Italian cinema, the neorealist auteur aimed to capture the plight of the common people. Although Romanian cinema pre-1989 was heavily embedded in metaphorical connotations that spoke against the communist regime, it still similarly managed to captivate a focus on the alienation of the individual and the degradation of society. Doru Pop argues in his essay, ‘The Grammar of the New Romanian Cinema’, that contrary to popular critical belief the ‘Romanian New Wave’ has already been and gone, “occupied by authors like Lucian Pintilie, Liviu Ciulei and Mircea Daneliuc, who in the 60s and late 70s won… considerable European recognition for their movies” (2010, p. 20). In view of this information, it becomes apparent that the terms ‘new wave’ and ‘neorealism’ are somewhat entwined into one singular movement, which occurred in Romanian cinema pre-1989. Pop names this period the “old wave” (2010, p. 20) while identifying what is happening in Romanian cinema today as the “(new) new wave” (2010, p. 22).
Conversely, the prominent auteurs that reside at the foreground of New Romanian Cinema refuse to accept that they are contributing towards a Noul Val Românesc. When asked about his contribution to the ‘Romanian New Wave’, Radu Muntean stated in an interview, “I’m always asked about the so-called Romanian New Wave. I don’t think we’re a united group” (cited in Taylor 2011). Equally, Cristi Puiu, the director of The Death of Mister Lăzărescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu) (2005), answered ardently, “There is not, not, not, not, not a Romanian New Wave” (cited in Scott 2008, p. 32). However, in response to Puiu’s stance, film critic A.O. Scott protested, “it’s hard, all the same, for an outsider to give full credence to the notion that the current flowering of Romanian film is entirely a matter of happenstance” (2008, p. 32). Which is why so many critics have hailed the recent outpouring of Romanian films as being of ‘new wave’ substance.
Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that every artist has something unique to offer to each movement. Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet are all considered as key contributors to the Theatre of the Absurd, and although they may share some significant commonalities, their personal philosophies differ quite extensively—Ionesco being the master of the political farce, Beckett of dark comedy and Genet of the human condition (Esslin 2004, pp. 29-128). If neorealism is eliminated as a term for describing the aesthetic principles behind New Romanian Cinema, because the films prior to the fall of communism were of neorealist nature, just as the term ‘new wave’ is proven unacceptable, then Pop has offered the term “new socialist realism” (2010, p. 20) to allow for classification of what is happening in Romanian cinema today.
A socialist realism: documenting the past
…the “new-new wave” of Romanian directors tend to recount their stories in the present time, not just in terms of their contemporary stories, but in terms of narrativity that is personally lived, even if its happening in the past (Pop 2010, p. 33).
The term ‘socialist realism’ originated in the Soviet Union as a reaction against Stalinist ideology (Dobrenko 2011, p. 159). For the purpose of deciphering the meaning of ‘socialist realism’ in New Romanian Cinema, I will begin with a brief reference to the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. In his essay, ‘Utopias of return: notes on (post-) Soviet culture and its frustrated (post-) modernisation’, Evgeny Dobrenko states, “Post-Soviet culture is a product of Stalinist culture” (2011, p. 159). Put more simply, the Russia of today is looking back on the gloom of its socialist past. This can be compared to New Romanian Cinema and the way it answers directly to the heaviness of the communist past and its existence within the present. The films that form part of New Romanian Cinema portray real life experiences, particularly fictional accounts based on the context of the communist past. However, these fictional accounts are based on atrocious realities, stories that have been silenced and consequently forgotten—an unfortunate trait of the Romanian identity. “This is a direct cinema, in the very sense of addressing direct and abrupt issues, some of them ignored for decades” (Pop 2010, p. 32). It seems obvious that the filmmakers at the forefront of New Romanian Cinema are concerned with uncovering the past and informing foreign viewers about a history that has remained neglected, especially compared to other Eastern European countries affected by a totalitarian regime.
The late Romanian film critic, Alexandru Leo Șerban, encapsulates New Romanian Cinema in the most poetic manner that remains true to its origins. He states that “Puiu planted the seed, Porumboiu watered it, and Mungiu picked the fruit” (2010, p. 15). This quote is translated into the following: Cristi Puiu is popularly recognised in his homeland as having commenced the alleged ‘new wave’ with Stuff and dough, a film that “confront[s] audiences with a discomforting reality never-before-seen-on-screen (at least never before 2001)” (Ieta 2010, p. 29). Corneliu Porumboiu implemented this “predisposition for realism” (Pop 2010, p. 25) in his film, 12:08 east of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) (2006) and recieved a positive appraisal for his feat. But it was Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile) (2007) that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for its distrubingly genuine portrayal of just “one aspect of social life during communism (illegal abortions)” (Pop 2010, p. 32). What is certain, is that the international success of 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days enhanced the recognition of a new form of cinema in Romania—stories that were finally confronting the realities of the communist past. The films of New Romanian Cinema operate as political commentaries of a time when the human condition in Romania was at its lowest.
Already in the first scene of 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, Mungiu presents an accurate portrait of what a university dormitory looked like in pre-1989 Romania—washed out grey walls and scratched paintwork. The camera focuses on a table dressed with cheap vinyl covering and various objects in its foreground—a desk lamp, an ashtray and some coffee mugs. Two women are in the room. Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) walks into the frame, moves some of the table contents around and begins to talk to her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). She then returns to the bed and sits down, nervously. As the two women make conversation, we come to understand Găbiţa’s dilemma. She is pregnant and has organised to have an illegal abortion.
The scenario takes place over the duration of a day in which the lives of these two women will change forever. Otilia vows to help Găbiţa and we see her taking care of business for her friend—bribing hotel receptionists for rooms and meeting with the abortionist, the ironically named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Alongside the many things Otilia needs to arrange to ensure a clandestine procedure, her immature boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean), pressures her into making an appearance at his mother’s birthday dinner that very evening. Otilia, after bartering her way into a hotel room, meets with Mr. Bebe in a nearby neighbourhood. He is disappointed that the women did not follow his instructions— Găbiţa was meant to meet with him and the procedure was to be done at either of two hotels, the Unirea or the Moldova. He unwillingly drives Otilia to the hotel Tineretului where the staff on duty orders them to leave their identification papers at the reception. They continue on to the room where Găbiţa is waiting. Mr. Bebe is furious but remains forebodingly composed at this point. He asks them if they realise the risk he has taken to be there—lending his identification and performing the abortion at an unfamiliar hotel. Mr. Bebe then mentions the danger of being caught by the authorities and because of this the amount of money that the women managed to scrape together is insufficient. Otilia starts to explain their situation, but Mr. Bebe explodes with anger and threatens to leave. Găbiţa manages to convince him to stay and the women understand the price they have to pay—they must each sleep with Mr. Bebe in order for him to perform the abortion.
Although the procedure itself does not take long, Găbiţa must lie in bed and wait for the foetus to expel. Otilia realises she is yet to meet Adi’s family for dinner and reluctantly leaves her friend on her own. The scene at Adi’s place is vital to the narrative because it demonstrates the importance of tradition—Otilia accepts a cigarette from a guest while another guest criticises her for smoking in front of her boyfriend’s parents insinuating that it is wrong for women to behave this way. Adi’s mother situates Otilia amid a dining table full of middle-aged guests. The camera focuses on Adi and Otilia who seem out of place in this scene, yo-yoing their attention from one side of the table to the other, following the trivial conversations that are of a different generation than their own. Otilia is understandably in a different mind-set altogether—at one point the phone rings and she looks towards it wondering if it is Găbiţa who is calling. Eventually, Otilia leaves the party contrary to Adi’s wishes and hurries back to the hotel only to find that Găbiţa is fast asleep. In the bathroom she discovers a bloodied towel containing the foetus. She wraps it up in her rucksack and ventures out to a block of flats where she hauls it down a garbage shaft. Otilia then returns to the hotel and finds Găbiţa in the lobby restaurant. They exchange a few words, but there is a sinister calmness between them. Otilia then looks outside the window and straight towards the camera, breaking the fourth wall. She looks to the audience as if to say that this is her story, her reality.
Mungiu portrays two major themes in his film that have each played significant roles in communist Romania—abortion and bribery. Abortion lies at the centre of the narrative and it is the conflict that ties the scenario together. The portrayal of abortion in the film, the characters involved and the manner in which the situation unfolds is very realistic. During the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime, abortions were made illegal and thus considered a criminal act. Peter Molloy’s documentary, The Lost World of Communism (2009), accurately epitomises the era:
He [Ceausescu] was obsessed with increasing the population to provide manpower for his new industries so in 1966 he banned abortion for all women except for those who already had four children. Any mother caught having an abortion was jailed, as was the abortionist. These were serious penalties, as crucially, contraception was banned as well.
The plight of Găbiţa and Otilia is true to life and what is not underlined in 4 months 3 weeks 2 days is the ban on contraceptives. At the same time as feeling an extreme sense of pity for the Găbiţa character, one could also perceive her as juvenile to some extent for not taking precautions. She is also superstitious and flustered, while Otilia has to constantly reassure her. And yet this cannot be held against her as only those who share her experience have firsthand knowledge of the terror of living under such oppression. “There was a diffusive fear during that period; people always felt guilty about something, observed; there was a loss of life” (Mungiu cited in Badt 2010, p. 107). Moreover, the sex in exchange for abortion scene is shocking in the same way as it is realistic. Students had no means of paying such large sums of money and many succumbed to such ordeals portrayed in the film, to avoid being sent to prison, which leads to the next main theme of bribery.
Otilia has to literally barter her way into hiring a hotel room, not an easy task during communist Romania. Generally, patrons needed to provide something material alongside the payment for the hotel room. This reminds me of something my mother once told me in regards to her experience as a university student in communist Romania. In search for a quiet place to study, she too had to barter a hotel room claiming that she would provide the receptionist with silk shirts from a renowned factory in her hometown, Sighişoara. Although Otilia booked the room a week in advance and addressed the front desk with a packet of cigarettes—a popular bribing item—the receptionist sends her away claiming that no such reservation was made under her friend’s name. Back at the student accommodation, Otilia purchases some basic essentials—a bar of soap, some cigarettes and a box of tic tacs—from a neighbouring exchange student who also deals in black market goods. During the 1980s, the Ceausescu government was exporting extensively across Europe. The supermarket shelves in Romania were literally empty and finding food for the week was a difficult task for many Romanians. Otilia accurately represents the people of her time and place—bribery was a necessary means of survival during the communist regime in Romania and has since become a ritual ingrained in society.
New realism not ‘new wave’
Apart from the fact that Muntean’s film, Tuesday, after Christmas, was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, the film also managed to receive an array of positive reviews. Reporting from Cannes, Steven Zeitchik stated, “Muntean's movie is a remarkable, pitch-perfect work, as convincing and affecting a portrayal of the subtleties of modern life and marriage as you'll find on the screen” (24 Frames 2010). On a similar note, the American film critic, Graham Fuller, called it a “supremely tense drama” (The Cutting Room 2010). At the time of its release, I was amazed that this film had been so well received, especially after reading its synopsis—a drama about a married man having an affair with a younger woman. I immediately thought that it sounded like something that has been numerously portrayed in films before. But then I remembered Muntean’s film Boogie (2008), which is another story about a married man’s infidelity. I thought about how this was a trait of New Romanian Cinema—to assume the structure of a simple narrative in which something much more complex is being examined.
In the case of Boogie, and certainly, Tuesday, after Christmas, it is the psyche of the male characters that is under scrutiny to which point the audience begins to accept the negative decisions and actions made and even sympathise with them. After arguing with his postnatally depressed wife, the protagonist in Boogie, Bogdan (Dragoş Bucur), ventures out on the town with two old high school friends. During the course of the evening they attempt to pick up a couple of scantily dressed younger women, attend nightclubs where they continue to drink excessively and where they eventually hire a prostitute. The plot is recognisable, like something that has been seen and done before, yet there is something sinister existing at the centre of the narrative and its characters. Furthermore, his male protagonists share something in common. They seem to be undergoing a crisis of some sort, which supports the main principle of realism—that any man-made or created artistic concept may be drawn closest to the real life experience, whilst at the same time adhering to its fictional representation, through this movement of realism.
Tuesday, after Christmas is one of the most captivating films of Romanian cinema. It is a film that continues to be praised by audiences and critics, proving to be a vital contribution to the New Romanian Cinema. The film opens daringly with a nude scene between two lovers who we later find out to be the main character, Paul (Mimi Brănescu), and his much younger mistress, Raluca (Maria Popistaşu). In an interview for Slant Magazine, Muntean states that he wanted the audience to be comfortable with the situation between the characters from the beginning and to show them in a natural manner (Kramer 2011). Interestingly enough, the opening, which happens to be the only sexual scene in the film, could only have been placed at the beginning in order to illustrate the reality of the situation. This is similar to 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days where the conflict is established right from the first scene, placing it close to the real life experience, where we are confronted with problems without us even anticipating them.
A more conventional approach would have been to unravel the protagonist’s life, the characters that surround him, his worries and dilemmas and then to perhaps portray the marital anxieties that lead to his consequent betrayal, making the audience see the protagonist in a negative light. However, placing the betrayal scene prior to narrative development allows the possibility to acknowledge the situation from the protagonist’s point of view. The problem is that Paul loves two women. He seems to share a loving family life with his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprişor) and a passionate relationship with Raluca. It is uncertain if Paul is having a mid-life crisis or if he is truly “very much in love” as he confesses his betrayal to his wife midway through the film. But it is evidently a realistic account, from beginning to end, of a character’s life-changing judgement.
What stands out above Tudor Luceacu’s minimalist cinematography and the exceptional acting is the psychology of the characters in Tuesday, after Christmas. As the layering of each character begins to unravel, we come to understand that there is something deeper at play within them. They each represent a particular period of Romania and through the associations that hold them together we notice a constant fluctuation between the past and the present. Paul represents this very link because he remains tied to the past through his marriage to Adriana and consequently remaining faithful to conventional societal norms. Yet he seems to also be focused on the future through his relationship with Raluca. Adriana mainly represents the present. Paul seems comfortably in love with her, but at the same time, displays signs of boredom—Christmas shopping, picking his daughter up from school and rubbing his wife’s feet represent the perpetual daily tasks of his character. Adriana is a symbol of the past as well because of the fact that she has been married to Paul for presumably a significant amount of years. Consequently this is an allegory for the current state of things in Romania—existing comfortably, to some extent, within the present but clinging desperately to the past.
Initially, Paul does not leave Adriana for Raluca because he is being held back by the memory of his marriage. Raluca signifies the future but not in an optimistic sense. Rather, she represents Paul’s future, the future that he has chosen for himself. Through her character, the link between the past and the present is broken—there is no more tension between the two, memories begin to erase and the future seems uncertain. Once Paul moves into Raluca’s apartment, he shifts awkwardly between the spaces of the bedroom and the kitchen. His belongings do not quite fit in with the studio flat and he examines the contents of the fridge as an outsider. The character of Paul is true to life. A psychological diagnosis of his persona would be that he is never happy with the decisions he makes and it is not the people around him that are at fault. Muntean states:
It's the human condition for me. That unrest that is inside you that somehow makes you go forward in life, but doesn't allow you to be happy. If you really want something in life, when you succeed to have it, as in Paul's situation, you immediately want something else. This kind of unrest is the center of the film (cited in Kramer 2011).
Paul is dissatisfied with his past and present while he is yet to be disappointed with his future. His character potentially symbolises the human condition in Romania because he wishes to leave the past behind and break away from his current situation so that he can move into the future, which in turn seems questionable. The past is also blatantly represented through Paul’s parents, particularly during the final scene in which the family gathers together on Christmas Eve.
The setting is his parents’ apartment and the action takes place around a dining table overflowing with traditional Romanian cuisine. His mother asks if Adriana is still bringing a cake as arranged to which the answer is irrelevant because, like the typical Romanian matriarch, she has made extra dessert just in case. This indicates a type of mentality that is indicative of life during communist Romania, where gatherings with friends and family were centred on providing plenty of homemade dishes. This was an important gesture to make because it denoted that, although times were rough, people relied on household get-togethers, such as the dinner party in 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, as an essential antidote for the difficulties they were facing. Paul has accomplished the traditional set of life goals—marriage, children, and career—all of which respond accordingly to traditional views and values. In fact, we never see him tell his parents about the divorce, wanting to leave it until after Christmas for everyone else’s sake and perhaps for fear of disappointing his parents, who are still deeply seeded in the past and are therefore untrusting of the future.
A collective consensus on the most appropriate translation for realism in cinema may never be reached, but this is not essential to the individual study of a particular cinema. Like stories that end without resolution, multifaceted terms like realism, enables the existence of diversity in narrative approaches. In relation to realism within New Romanian Cinema, it is understood as the Romania of today—heaving towards the future but delayed by the burden of its communist past. Since Stuff and dough the films made in Romania are looking back upon the past, even if this is done indirectly, as in the case of Tuesday, after Christmas or presented as a disturbingly accurate portrayals, such as that of 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. Realism in New Romanian Cinema is the documentation of the current human condition in Romania and its connection to ‘what has been’ and ‘what has remained’. I would like to conclude with Ieta’s words on the importance of realism in hope that the films of Romania are understood for what they are—realist portraits of human existence:
Let us remember that some of the masterpieces of both world literature and cinema tackle everydayness, usually perceived as banal reality from which the mind and soul try to escape, and that the philosophical dimension of art oftentimes arises from elaborate interpretations given to everydayness (2010, p. 22)
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